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Preview: Portland Timbers vs. Real Salt Lake

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SOCCER: AUG 23 MLS Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers

The Portland Timbers take on Real Salt Lake at Providence Park tonight at 7:30 p.m. (Pacific). Real Salt Lake (RSL) struggled to score goals in Orlando during the MLS is Back Tournament. Damir Kreilach scored twice, and Albert Rusnak and Douglas Martinez both scored once at the tournament.

RSL won their first match in Orlando 2-0 against Colorado Rapids, tied with Minnesota United 0-0 and lost to Sporting Kansas City 2-0 before being sent home by San Jose.

RSL looked to bounce back after their tournament exit against the one team they beat in Orlando. They traveled to Colorado on August 22 and emerged 4-1 victors. Despite the dominant score line, it was not a great performance, and they have a variety of weaknesses that the Timbers could capitalize on.

RSL’s Offensive Set-up

The RSL performance against Colorado was a tale of two halves. In the first half, RSL struggled to create opportunities. They set up in a 4-3-3 with Martinez leading the line. He was subbed off due to a collision to his head. Kreilach seemed to move to striker rather than his preferred position of a number ten.

Early in the first half, Kreilach would drop deep to receive the ball and look to find outlets up the field. When he was moved farther up the pitch, Pablo Ruiz was the only midfielder who received the ball in between the center backs. This restricted RSL’s ability to move the ball forward and be unpredictable in possession.

When RSL was able to get the ball forward, they looked to Rusnak to create opportunities. He operated in between the lines, receiving the ball and turning to run at defenders or playing Kreilach and Justin Meram in on goal.

Real Salt Lake v Colorado Rapids - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The team was set up very narrowly and almost always looked to go through the middle. This made them predictable in the first half but was also dangerous. RSL’s best moments came when Keirlach, Meram, or Corey Baird cut inside and looked to play in another attacking runner who would make the opposite diagonal, slashing run behind the defense.

In the second half, Maikel Chang was subbed on. The substitution allowed Kreilach and Rusnak to join the midfield and get more time on the ball. This completely changed how RSL played. The midfield was solidified, and RSL added more width by having wingbacks Aaron Herrera and Donny Toia get into more attacking positions.

The Rapids turned the ball over in dangerous positions and allowed RSL’s playmakers too much time on the ball. RSL scored four goals in the second half, but it was not a great RSL performance. They scored two goals when Colorado shifted to a three-back system that looked atrocious and scored another on an own goal. RSL deserved to win the match, but it was not an overwhelming performance. They also allowed Colorado a lot of space and opportunities that could have been exploited if the Rapids were more precise.

Opportunities for the Timbers

RSL demonstrated their reliance on Kreilach to move the ball forward in their poor first half performance. Expect him to drop deeper to help RSL progress the ball. If the Timbers midfield and defense can limit service to Kreilach, RSL could find themselves in the same predicament as in the first half against the Rapids.

Similarly, the RSL players struggled to deal with defensive pressure, especially when their backs were to the ball. Defensive pressure is something that Portland has executed really well. The Timbers’ midfield and attackers should look to pressure RSL players as they are receiving the ball to force turnovers and start transition opportunities.

SOCCER: AUG 23 MLS Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers

These transition opportunities can be optimized on the wings. RSL defended in a narrow shape throughout the match against the Rapids and struggled to deal with attackers on the wings. Portland’s wingers should be able to get the best of the RSL defenders in one vs. one duels and play crosses into the box. RSL did not look confident tracking runners in the box, especially if the runners arrived late from midfield.

It will be interesting to see how the Timbers set up in this match. The last time they played at Providence Park they were embarrassed 3-0 by the Seattle Sounders. In that match, it seemed Giovanni Savarese strayed from the defensive-minded approach that worked so well in Orlando. Against Seattle, Portland tried to possess the ball more but lacked creativity in the final third.

Whether Savarese decides to go with a more defensive or possession-based approach, Portland has the quality to punish RSL. They also have the players to dominate the ball against RSL. The Timbers will definitely have to be much sharper than they were against Seattle to get a result, but this seems like an opportunity for Portland to get back on track while working on some of the weaknesses that were exposed by Seattle.